When TV shows have been around for a few seasons, sometimes they get relaxed and hit the autopilot button. Some shows do the opposite, blowing everything up to start completely fresh, an option that usually involves major casting changes, time jumps, or entirely new premises. Season four of Billions charts a middle path, shifting around enough of its usual architecture to feel fresh, while also continuing to follow most of its original characters and stories.
That assessment may sound a touch milquetoast — more of the same, but different! And it’s true: If you liked Billions before, you will continue to like it now. If you didn’t, well, the same idea applies. But the thing I appreciated most about the first four episodes of Billions’ fourth season is the way they go about changing things: The characters are the same, but most of the relationships have inverted. Bad-boy hedge-fund genius Bobby Axelrod (Damian Lewis) is now working on the same team as his mortal nemesis, U.S. Attorney Chuck Rhoades (Paul Giamatti). Axelrod is now tilted against his former wunderkind protégé, Taylor Mason (Asia Kate Dillon), who’s started their own competitor fund and is poaching Axelrod talent. It’s fun to keep the game board mostly the same while swapping all the usual allegiances. It’s especially satisfying to watch Chuck and Bobby scheme together.
More than that, though, there’s been a palpably goofy, go-for-broke mentality lurking inside Billions for the last three seasons, and season four is not shy about turning that dial up to 11. Billions’ goofy chaos impulse has always lived most noticeably in David Costabile’s Wags, Bobby Axelrod’s right-hand man who is half devoted servant, half trickster god. Now it feels like that energy is leaking out everywhere. You can sense it in the way Billions positions Chuck and Bobby to team up, and in John Malkovich’s unsubtle guest-starring role as the powerful Russian mobster Grigor Andolov, and in Taylor striking out on their own to take down the master.
Season four’s oomph is especially felt during a major revelation in episode four, a plot turn that’s met with a lengthy montage of reaction shots from every member of the cast. That reaction sequence takes so much time to wallow in the moment, so thoroughly pleased with itself and its own silliness, that you practically expect one of the characters to turn to the camera and wink. There’s something about the season that makes it seem like, at some point, someone in the writers room must’ve turned to the assembled group and declared, “Let’s just do it and be legends.”
Billions is not the only show on TV right now about wealthy people at the upper echelons of New York power. HBO’s Succession has picked up many of the same ideas, and has performed many of Billions’ comedic tricks with an even straighter face. They are both shows about power and money, shows about terrible people who do heartless things. If Billions is a cheerfully messy good time wearing prestige-TV tropes as drag, Succession walks an even thinner line between comedy and self-serious darkness, and is often funnier and more sad because of it.
The difference between them, though, is that while Succession is mostly interested in the mess that happens when a family becomes a business, Billions is a show about the process of power.
Like its single-minded stock traders, there’s nothing Billions loves more than a transaction — discussing strategy, planning the operation, negotiating terms, shifting who has the leverage and how they got it. Very few of the transactions are ever about something visible or concrete; money and power exist on Billions as abstractions with no meaning except as something someone wants. Bobby and Chuck are surrounded by the symbols and trappings of their success, but the things everyone trades with such intensity are rarely tangible objects. Bobby wins and loses buckets of money, and you only ever know it because he and his employees love to talk about the process of doing it. Chuck trades in favors and reciprocities, and his star rises and falls inside the span of a few lunch meetings. On Succession, everyone’s paralyzed with fear, afraid to make a move lest they calculate incorrectly. The characters on Billions would rather lose everything than be too afraid to take a risk. Keeping things is boring. Trading is fun.
There’s a delicious sequence in the first episode of season four that leans into that ideology. Chuck, ousted from his seat as U.S. Attorney, desperately needs to get back on top. In order to please an important bigwig, Chuck needs to get the man a permit to carry a gun, something nearly impossible to acquire as a private citizen in New York City. He falls into a cycle of favors, flitting from one breakfast joint to the next, trading a set of tickets to a Hanukkah service here, an elite mountain access ski pass there, before he finally turns the key he needs with the police commissioner and gets the job done. The whole thing plays out like a tiny heist movie that swings through Barney Greengrass and Sparks Steak House; it is a delight.
The precise result of Chuck Rhoades’s wheel of favors doesn’t matter. He gets the gun permit. Someone is happier than they were before. Chuck climbs another rung of the latter, but he still ends the night lying halfway in a gutter, looking up at the sky. It’s a good place from which to start the fourth season of a show. There’s lots to gain and lots to lose, but at the end of the day, everyone’s there to wear their three-piece suits and fleece vests, to make some trades and have fun. As a character on Billions might say while offering up something they know is a great deal: You could do worse.